Each year when my kids come home with their Halloween bags full of goodies, I coerce them into letting me sample two things: Almond Joy bars and Reese’s peanut butter cups. Yes, even as a chocolate connoisseur, I occasionally eat common everyday candy. It’s becoming less and less every year, but there’s something compelling me, perhaps some nostalgia, to reach into the bag with a bit of reluctance and pull out a big hunk of sugar like a smoker who’s quit but occasionally indulges in just one cigarette.
But not all candy has to be junk, does it? When I learned that the fair trade organic chocolate maker from Seattle, Theo Chocolate, just put out a new peanut butter cup, I had to give it a fair review vs. the old standby: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups by Hershey’s. Theo actually makes two types – a milk chocolate and a dark chocolate. I went for the healthier and I hope tastier dark chocolate option.
Where to buy: Reese’s – just about anywhere. I bought a two-pack at a local old-school convenience store for $1.30 only to find them completely melted. To give Hershey’s a fair shake, I had to start with something in good condition, so I found another pack at the big-box hardware store for $1.20 bringing my total effective cost to $2.50. Ingredients: milk chocolate (sugar, cocoa butter, chocolate, milk solids, non-fat milk, milk fat, lactose, soy lecithin, PGPR emulsifier), peanuts, sugar, dextrose, salt, TBHQ (preservative).
Where to buy: Theo – available online at NewLeaf Chocolates for $2.49. Ingredients: Cocoa Beans, Cane Sugar, Peanut Butter (Roasted Peanuts), Cocoa Butter, Powdered Sugar (Cane Sugar, Cornstarch), Peanut Flour, Salt, Rosemary Extract (Vegetable Oil, Rosemary Extract), Ground Vanilla Bean.
Aroma: Reese’s – all peanut butter. I tried several times to find some scent of chocolate and the closest I could come to is milk. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. First smell a real dark chocolate bar and then the peanut butter cups.
Aroma: Theo – first chocolate and then something nutty.
Taste: Reese’s – It’s a big sugar rush. The taste is dominated by sugar and peanuts up front. Real chocolate flavor was hard to find. All my life could I have been enjoying only the perception of chocolate?
Taste: Theo – once you bite into it, it’s all peanuts just like Reese’s, but much less sweet. A moment later, the real chocolate flavor appears with a very short-lived hint of fruit. It was an unexpectedly less intense experience than Reese’s mainly because with Reese’s the sugar is overwhelming. With Theo, you enjoy the chocolate flavor more and can feel and taste it separately in your mouth. The finish eventually goes back to all nuts.
Texture: Reese’s – A grittiness perhaps from the nuts turns smooth after a while.
Texture: Theo – There’s a good snap at the start. You will want to let it melt on your tongue a bit before chewing to let the chocolate catch up to the peanut butter flavors.
TBHQ + PGPR + YOU = ?
I know some of you are wondering about those suspiciously long abbreviations in the Reese’s ingredients list. Here’s what they mean.
TBHQ is tertiary butylhydroquinone, an antioxidant that is derived from petroleum. It’s often used as a preservative on packaging and in some foods with the full blessing of the FDA as long as it’s below a certain concentration. This is not the type of antioxidant you get from blueberries and green tea. This is an industrial chemical used to slow the oxidation of fats and other stuff so they don’t taste rancid.
PGPR is polyglycerol polyricinoleate, an emulsifier used to reduce the viscosity of chocolate so that they can pump it around a big factory in pipes and quickly fill all corners the little paper cups that hold the chocolate. It also makes it easier for the chocolate to melt into a formless heap if it sits on a sunny store shelf.
Look, I don’t think we should be afraid of every chemical that has a long name – there’s plenty of complex chemicals naturally produced by your own body after all. But, I don’t see any need for PGPR or TBHQ in my chocolate. To produce a peanut butter cup that sells for not much more than a dollar, I suppose you have to throw in a couple of chemicals. That’s what you get for $1.30.
If you try to research the safety of these chemicals on the web, you’re bound to run into some pseudo science, so be careful. If you want some better information, I’d start with the Wikipedia links at the bottom of this page. Or you might be the type to enjoy a good cigarette along with your peanut butter cups and not worry about the consequences. If so, I won’t judge you… really .
Well, it looks like I’ve outgrown Reese’s peanut butter cups after all – gone along with a long list of bad habits that I look back upon with a certain degree of fondness including Frosted Mini Wheats, imitation bacon bits, and Coors Lite. This one’s easy to shed though thanks to Theo. They’ve given me a genuine chocolate treat at an accessible price. I know some of you are still not convinced. In your mind, Reese’s are what peanut butter cups are supposed to taste like. It’s always been that way and always will be. OK, but just imagine if in your childhood there was only Theo!
 I was given these for free when I bought a bunch of other stuff from Theo. They had no idea what I might do with them.
 Read more about TBHQ on Wikipedia.
 Read more about PGPR on Wikipedia
 Didn’t we learn anything from Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier?”